Monday, January 28, 2019
January 28, 2019: Great (Sports) Debates: Who Invented Baseball?
[Sunday, February 3rd is that national holiday known as Super Bowl Sunday. For this year’s Super Bowl series I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of great sports debates—add your opinion into the mix in comments, please!]
On what’s not the case about the sport’s origins, and two interesting details of the (uncertain) real story.
So apparently Abner Doubleday had nothing whatsoever to do with the invention of baseball. I’m not gonna pretend for a second that I knew that before researching this post—indeed, blog completists might remember that I highlighted Doubleday as at least a strong contender for the title in this long-ago post on Thomas Dyja’s Play for a Kingdom (if you are really that long-standing and attentive of a reader, please please please leave a comment or email me and say hi!). But while former baseball player, club executive, and sporting goods entrepreneur Albert Spalding really pushed the narrative of Doubleday as the sport’s inventor—going so far as to commission his friend and former National League President Abraham Mills to “investigate” the question, leading to the highly suspect Mills Commission report of December 1907—the truth is that there is no specific evidence in Doubleday’s life or writings, or any peripheral materials, to support the myth. That’s particularly ironic because the Mills Commission identified Cooperstown, NY as the site of Doubleday’s invention (in the equally fabricated year of 1839), leading to the eventual location of the Baseball Hall of Fame in that town.
Doubleday’s lack of involvement with the sport’s invention is far more certain than the question of when baseball was invented, and by whom. Indeed, what is far more definite is the late 19th and early 20th century featuring warring camps, and that those camps were often explicitly linked to the ongoing rivalry between England and America. The English historians traced the sport’s origins to various traditional folk games, from archaic games like “stoolball” and “trap ball” to the more familiar (and still played) parallel sports of cricket and rounders. Their American rivals acknowledge these antecedents and influences, but focus instead on more direct references in early American texts and documents to games like “baste ball” (mentioned in the 1786 diary of Princeton University student John Rhea Smith), or to “baseball” being included (alongside “wicket, cricket, batball” and others) in a 1791 bylaw in Pittsfield, MA. In truth, what these various historical examples and details indicate is that the sport developed over centuries, through various iterations and stages, and was played in both England and America for many years before being standardized and professionalized (on which more in a moment). But that’s not as sexy as a fight to the death between Revolutionary rivals, so I’ll let the transatlantic diamond turf war proceed unchecked.
Apologies to my EnglishStudying colleagues and friends, but it was more definitely in an American setting that the sport’s rules were first laid down in a more standardized way. That setting was New York City in September 1845, where the Knickerbocker Club and its officers Alexander Cartwright, William Wheaton, and William Tucker published a set of rules that came to be known as (duh) the Knickerbocker rules. These rules were close enough to the modern game that in 1953 Congress credited Cartwright as the sport’s inventor, which was a total slap in the face to the Williams but that’s another story for another post. But in any case I think we can all agree that the most compelling thing about the Knickerbockers was their decision later in 1845 to move their home games to Hoboken, NJ’s Elysian Fields, which remains the most impressively named field or stadium I’ve ever encountered. As I’ve highlighted in just about every post I’ve written about baseball in this space, the sport captures certain fundamental, pastoral, idyllic American images in a legendary, mythological way that defies precise histories, which might just explain why the history of its own invention remains and likely will always remain an open debate.
Next debate tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other great debates you’d highlight?